Hard as it may be to believe, admissions officers are not reading each file with red pen in hand eager to place the next candidate into the reject pile based on a few grammatical errors or a poorly chosen topic. Instead, they are trying to admit a group of people who are interesting, smart enough to do the work, and who are going to be positive contributors to the incoming class. Aside from the numbers on the transcript and standardized test report, how will they find you? How do you become more than the sum of your credentials? Open up the third dimension of your application with a well crafted essay. Admissions officers want to know about your personality, accomplishments, interests and fears. With the average admissions officer reading three applications per hour, there’s little room for digression. You must write an essay that will engage them as well as give them information not found elsewhere on the application. How do you do that? Read on.

Consider Yourself
With a lifetime of experiences to draw upon, you’ve got a wealth of material at hand. Think about what makes you — you — and then write down the stories in your life that demonstrate those attributes. Give the reader the opportunity to know you by considering how the essay topic relates to you.

Get Personal
The best way to show a committee who you are is to personalize your essays. Generic essays are not only boring to read, but they are a waste of time—they don’t allow the reader to get to know you better. One of the best ways to cut through the formalities and conventionalities include a story taken from your life and use lots of detail. It does not have to be a tragedy, a personal epiphany or a life changing event. The weight of the event isn’t what’s important. The depth of personal connection is. Students do themselves a disservice by relying on the simple re-telling of a life-altering event instead of writing about something that has really touched or interested them. In a nutshell, it is you that the committee wants to know about, not the event. If your story doesn’t specifically tell the reader who you are, then you are missing your opportunity. Not Just The Devil’s In The Details An essay without details is empty. It’s the details that give life to your words and your ideas. You will need to back up each and every point that you make with specific examples and scenarios drawn from your experiences. Talk about a change you’ve made, or take a different approach to a common topic. Don’t just say you’ve been a leader, tell a story about your leadership, rich with the specifics of the event or group you’ve led. As every English teacher you’ve ever had says, “Show, don’t tell!”

Tell a Story
A simple story is a great way to make your essay interesting and enjoyable. But as Steve Martin says in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, “When you’re telling these little stories, have a point. It makes it so much more interesting to the listener!” So, don’t tell a story just because it seems clever or cute or intellectual. Tell a story that will inform the reader about you. How do you make it work? Start your essay with your story, then step back into the role of narrator and explain why you told it and what you’ve learned from it. Don’t be tempted to introduce your story—you want to grab the reader’s attention, and the story will do just that.

Something to Write Home About
If you can’t seem to pull off the story idea, then add interest to your essay by writing it as if it were a story. I call it the “letter to Grandma” voice. Write in a softer, more informal way as if you were speaking to someone you know. Resist the urge to use words that you wouldn’t normally use (hint: ditch the thesaurus). Make sure your essay flows well and builds momentum, ending with the point you are trying to make. Your words will be guiding the reader along the interesting path to your main idea. Be careful not to go too far with the informal voice or use of humor, however. You don’t want to sound too casual, and you don’t want to offend any reader with a remark that you thought was hilarious but really missed the mark.

You Deserve A Break
Once you’ve finished your first draft, leave your work alone for a while—a few days, if you can afford it. Revision is best done through fresh eyes, and that’s near impossible when you’ve just finished creating it. Go back and make sure each word counts. See if it sounds like you. Does it flow when you read it out loud? Be sure it’s well organized, grammatically correct, uses active verbs, and varies sentences. Is it personal? Is the essay interesting? Is it memorable?

The essay in itself isn’t the only factor in the admissions decision, nor is it even the most important one. You are not likely to get into college simply based on your essay, nor will you be rejected for it. However, if you take time to compose a well-written essay that’s reflective of your experience, you will breathe life into your black and white application.

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Joanne Fawcett has been assisting students with their college choices for over 15 years, formerly as an Associate Director of Admissions and currently as a highschool counselor for a public school and a consultant/public speaker in Suffolk County. She can be reached at jcfawcett@optonline.net.

By no means should you ever copy any part of anyone else’s essay…

Actual high school students post their essays on this site. Look at a few for some creative ideas.

College Board posts two essays with critiques.

Samples of what worked and what didn’t.

Connecticut College is kind enough to post their students’ essays on the college website, and they even offer some tips.

Tips from Carleton College.

*Note: Websites included on this list are not intended as referrals for services offered on the sites. You do not have to pay someone to read good and/or bad essays.